Guts, Glory, RAM
First, I need to explain why I’m writing this.
Many years ago, I whiled away a lazy afternoon surfing MCM, the French music channel. I caught the start of a song I’d never heard the likes of before. A thumping beat, goaded by funked-out bass, ridden by a dirty guitar riff. The video was annoying because the beat was interspersed with dialogue (I didn’t know who Spike Jonze was and didn’t care). I did find myself leaning forward and concentrating hard to isolate the beat from the rest of the distracting nonsense on the screen. I could’ve just given up and changed the channel but the song commanded me to stay. I’ve obliged ever since.
A month later, I walked in the door to find my brother staring transfixed at a synchronized and bizarre dance of swimmers, skeletons and robots. Perfectly coordinated hand movements and steps up and down a circular stage augmented with a constant robotic drone intoning, “around the world a-round the wooorld around the world a-round the woooorld”. And there it was again. A thumping beat goaded on by bass. These guys (who were they?) knew how to make you move.
Both those songs, ‘Da Funk’ and ‘Around The World’, came off their debut album Homework that I promptly purchased and reduced to shreds over the next year (we had cassettes back then). Their beats had power and finesse. Their tunes were repetitive but were loops of melodies you didn’t mind nodding along to till you forgot the rest of your day. There were complex scratches and sounds whose antecedents weren’t obvious and a few tracks featured robotic voices, to become the mainstay of the rest of their career.
Their next album Discovery blew my mind. It was thoughtful, melodious, innocent and memorable. It had a balance of the edge trademarked in Homework and experimentation with emotion and melody. It contained samples of the songs the duo had grooved to (who were they?) when they were teenagers, discovering emotions borne out of the swirling whirlpool of confusion endemic to that age. It was also the album in which they debuted their robot look – a fascinating, if puzzling manifestation of themselves. Clearly, they weren’t publicity hungry and were content with the image they were creating – eclectic, experimentative, emotional, evocative electro-kings.
Their third album, ‘Human After All‘, was an utter disaster. I was shocked by the rawness of the album and its heavy dependence on electronic aids. The title seemed ironic at the time because the sound was anything but human. It had the occasional bright flashes but you’d have to be delusional to take the time to find positives in that mélange of digital noise. Daft Punk admitted their mistake with the direction in the album, not because the sales figures were low (which doesn’t seem like something they’ve cared about), but because it was an experiment that had gone wrong.
“We really felt that the computers are not really music instruments, and we were not able to express ourselves using a laptop. We tried, but were not successful.”
They were also apologizing for what had happened to electronic dance music since then. Always considered the godfathers of EDM, their experiment gone awry had inspired a culture of overproduced, clinical sounds generated by computers. I had stopped listening to much of EDM produced since 2008. It was ridiculous, repetitive and noisy.
(It occurred to me that “Human After All” was rather apt, in light of their mea culpa.)
They went silent after that, concentrating on solo projects before making a brief return for their first US No 1 effort – the ambitious soundtrack to Tron: Legacy headlined by the brilliant “Derezzed” and “End of Line”. What struck me was their commitment to their idea of music and the guts to experiment.
Then, on March 2, they aired a 15-second teaser on Saturday Night Live, for their new album “Random Access Memories”. It’s a testament to their body of work over twenty years that the teaser went viral. What followed was a masterful marketing effort involving strategic leaks and small samples dutifully picked up by legions of fans and converted into their (at times brilliant) interpretations. On May 13, 2013 they put the entire album available to stream. Free.
That’s right, the entire fucking album was free to stream. You could hear the whole thing and make up your mind if you wanted to preorder the album. I’ve mostly listened to it for the past week, not because I felt obliged to as a die-hard fan, but because after the first couple of days I wanted to go back to two or three standout tracks in the album.
I read a lot about the thought behind it. They said they wanted to go back to a time when music had character. A time when it echoed off the walls of iconic studios and was created by humans with extraordinary ability to connect through their music.
The album makes your jaw drop. If you’re a Daft Punk fan, it’s best not to consider this a continuation of their EDM legacy, but of their legacy of ballsy experimentation. The opening track is fittingly titled “Give Life Back To Music”, a sincere entreaty to move away from canned computer sounds. What strikes you first is the tone of the bass. It’s sonorous, natural, uninhibited. That’s because it comes off a bass guitar. There are no samples in this album and computers have been kept to a bare minimum (mostly their own robotic voices).
The list of collaborators had me thinking they were going to unleash a tribute to disco but the album is so much deeper and emotional. There aren’t too many songs you’ll groove to on the dance floor. It’s an ambitious tribute to their roots and sometimes a confusing and overwrought rendition of sounds. My favorite song “Lose Yourself To Dance” starts with their trademark drum and bass thump, but this time it’s live, played by humans and it’s bloody incredible. I found myself going back to this track again and again. Pharrell Williams croons the title as the robots unobtrusively create an electronic tapestry with an endless loop of “come on”. And that fucking bass all the time digging into your pleasure centers.
Then there are thoughtful ballads reminiscent of “Something About Us” from Discovery. Except, this time they’re exploring a more poignant part of their personalities. It’s not about young love; it’s about unrequited love. It’s about heartbreak. And the juxtaposition of melodic robotic voices using the sad, thoughtful melodies as a crutch evokes a sense of wonder, not dissonance. They want to make you cry and the first time you listen to the album you’re angry with them. How can they try manipulating emotions? We were expecting straight-laced dance ditties so can we get to them please? Then you hear it again and surrender.
If they decide to tour live for this album (and I sincerely hope they do), “Contact” is going to be a showpiece. Orchestral, apocalyptic sounds reminiscent of a spacecraft’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, it’s a stunning conclusion to the album.
The album isn’t even out yet and they’ve given legions of fans like me a chance to make up our minds about it. Here’s what I recommend: buy the whole album and listen to it in the order they intended. Don’t buy singles – they’re just isolated puffery that cannot do justice to the vision.
I celebrate the eclectic, reticent and mysterious robots. I celebrate the return of the pioneers. I celebrate them giving life back to music.